Wreck Fishing Basics
Wreck fishing has many variations. This article covers a few basics but all aspects of this type of fishing cannot be covered here. Wreck fishing refers to fishing areas of rough bottom, artificial reefs, and shipwrecks. These descriptions relate to fishing along the Delmarva coast out to about 40 or 50 fathoms and areas of the Chesapeake Bay. Some of this material relates to structure fishing overall and some may be unique to the local area. This section touches on fishing specific species but more information regarding fish is available on a per species basis elsewhere on this site.
Finding structure to fish is the most difficult and time consuming part of this type of fishing. The first step is to research potential areas to fish. This can take years or decades in cases. A little history review will explain this concept better. Most of the local wrecks are either the result of marine disaster, the W.W.II submarine attacks or intentional sinkings by the various Artificial Reef authorities.
Many of the near forgotten wrecks along the coast were located by commercial fishermen who usually found them by tangling their gear in the wrecks. This was very costly and most commercial watermen, especially the sea clammers and scallopers, kept records of their "hangs" so as to avoid them. These lists got passed on, sold or stolen and ended up in the hands of commercial hook and liners, divers, charterboat captains and eventually the recreational fishermen. The raw list was only a starting point. Perhaps 10% of the numbers were useable and of them, each good number still required extensive searching to relocate a wreck and actually produce fish.
Years ago, there were no GPS receivers. Large commercial boats employed a vary primitive tool called Loran-A. Later the technology evolved and Loran-C became available. In the late eighties, the price of Loran-C equipment plummeted. Shortly thereafter, GPS receivers came on the market and soon they were cheap as well. The quality and features of the Lorans, GPS units and fishfinders mushroomed overnight. These events influenced the rapid influx of anglers into the wreck fishing culture. The fishing pressure has taken it's toll and the results have been disastrous in some cases. In spite of this, wreck fishing can be very good, even today.
Today, there are books, webpages, user forums, and the like to aid in finding good fishing spots. Some wreck locations can be found on this site and links to many more are found in the links page. An Internet search engine, trip to the bookstore, or visit to forums can yield some possibilities as well. One of the best types of structure to search for are the many artificial reefs. Locations are widely published and many of the structures are large and easily found.
Locating the wreck on the water is not always as easy as it sounds but can be rewarding. Patience is a must. I begin by entering all the possible coordinates in the Loran, GPS or preferably both. If I have a plotter function, I will use it. When I am within .2 miles of my prospect, I will slow down to a crawl and let the electronics settle. I will zoom the plotter in until all the coordinates just fit on the screen. If I don't see anything encouraging right away, I move to my waypoint with the best reputation and drop a marker buoy on the exact spot. The buoy is an old crab pot marker or jug with nylon "crab pot" line and 12 or more lbs of weight. One large or two small window sash weights make a perfect buoy anchor. The line must be as short as possible but must have 10-20 feet of slack to overcome the ground swell of the ocean. Windy weather or big seas will make this operation impractical. After deploying the buoy, I recheck the coordinates and relocate the buoy if needed until it marks my exact spot. I then make ever widening circles around the buoy while watching the fishfinder. If I see a sudden change in depth, significant fish or a change in bottom hardness, I take a mark and explore further. I like to zoom in even closer with a plotter function at this stage.
Some of the tricks that I have learned can really speed things up and increase the odds of success. I prefer to manually adjust the gain of the fishfinder up as sensitive as I can tolerate. Any fish alarms or ID symbols MUST be disabled. Also, I look for other signs around me. Another boat full of happy anglers reeling up fish when I arrive is a good one to watch for. Also look and see if anyone has left a buoy from a previous trip. Sea life may give away a wreck's location. Seals, dolphins, sharks, spanish mackeral and bluefish can all be visible clues that a wreck is nearby. Many wrecks will leak oil which can be seen on the water. Occasionally a wreck can actually be seen in the water or "boilers" can be spotted. The term boiler can mean a smokestack but in this context means a cloud of silt in the water.
Once I locate the wreck, I do NOT drop right on it. I prefer to continue circling slowly and taking marks each time I spot a piece. After a couple of passes, I can get some idea of how the wreck lies and it's overall size. I also begin to watch the sonar for signs of fish. Sometimes clues on the fishfinder can help determine the types of fish present on the wreck. Are there schools of marks at mid depth or high in the water column? These can be bluefish, triggerfish or seabass. What about very large marks around the wreck? These could indicate sharks, amberjacks, cobia or a host of pelagic predators looking for an easy meal. Marks down current on near shore wrecks are often trout or small bluefish. Flounder may hang around under these fish, grabbing scraps. Tight marks on the wreck can also be useful as they may be more plentiful on one end.
Choosing the season to fish a given wreck is important. A more efficient way to think of this is to develop a plan of possible target wrecks for a given day. Some wrecks are hot only during cold weather, others are summer wrecks. I like to have a plan which entails fishing 3 or 4 wrecks in a morning, each in a slightly different environment. Another plan is to mix a brief drop on a wreck with other types of fishing during the day.
Bait and tackle can make or break a wreck trip. Some of the preparation needs to be done long before the trip begins. Medium to heavy action rods work for us with conventional reels. My personal rigs include #30 monofilament for wrecks up to about 50 feet and #30 braided line for deeper situations. If the reel is spooled with mono, I simply tie a surgeon's loop which about 4 inches long about 18 inches from the end of the line. A cheap bronze kahle style hook gets threaded on the loop and a sinker is tied at the bottom with a couple square knots. The square knot is very weak and will fail if the sinker gets hung up, saving the rest of the leader and often a hooked fish. This simple rig can be redone in seconds and costs practically nothing. Most importantly, a lost rig can be replaced quickly. Time can be critical as the window of opportunity on a wreck seldom lasts. The single hook is less likely to hang up and most anglers will catch more fish per hour with one hook. If I use braided line, I attach a similar mono leader to the rig with a swivel. These rigs are tied in advance and set out when fishing begins.
Before the trip, I try to obtain good bait for the fishing. Tautog require hard crabs or clams. Trout demand squid or clams. Triggerfish can be finicky. I prefer fresh cut fish belly strips for bait. Dolphinfish, skipjack tuna or false albacore make the best cut bait. Sea bass will eat anything. Squid is the basic sea bass bait. In general we target large sea bass which can be caught among the hundreds of smaller fish. I strongly prefer a very large strip of bait. I will often use a whole squid mantle. My theory is that the larger fish will hold back until a big bait appears. The small fish will pick at it but cannot swallow it. The larger fish will charge in and gobble it up. This phenomenon has be proven many times as anglers use various size baits. Most of my veteran crewmembers choose large baits when targeting the large male sea bass or "knotty heads".
Most often, I drift the boat over the wreck, watching the plotter as a drift pattern emerges. I don't like to extend my drift more than about 75 feet after the structure disappears from the fishfinder. This allows us to cover all of the wreck and pinpoint better areas. This method allows us a more diverse catch as the various species of fish may inhabit different zones of the wreck. Drifting also allows multiple boats to cooperate and fish a wreck effectively.
Some situations make anchoring the preferred method. This is more difficult and not something I resort to unless necessary. Anchoring has some excellent advantages but presents some danger as well. A boat with a wreck anchor cleated off at the stern is susceptible to sinking and many otherwise seaworthy boats get in trouble this way. Even if a boat has a primary anchor deployed from the bow, trouble can arise if the primary anchor comes loose and the boat swings around with the stern into the sea. Another real possibility of danger exists when a boat is anchored tight on structure and a submarine passes nearby. The huge wake can swamp a boat with virtually no warning. Oddly enough, the smaller boats with their flatter bottoms and light engines are often less affected by these situations than the bigger rigs. In either case, be aware of the dangers of wreck anchoring techniques before attempting to utilize them.
Before anchoring on a wreck, anglers may need to make several drifts while noting the direction of the drifts on the plotter. Once a pattern is established, the captain can follow a path that takes the boat from down current, directly over the wreck and continuing on the same heading for another 100-200 feet. The goal is to reach an area free of obstructions that might snag an anchor. Next, a primary anchor can be deployed, using plenty of line. As the anchor comes tight the boat should come to rest over or near the wreck. In reality, this rarely happens on the first attempt. The sum of current and wind constantly change and the boat will not ride in the same place for long.
For this reason, wreck fishermen often deploy a grappling hook or "wreck anchor" which is used to snag onto the wreck itself. The wreck anchor is specially shaped with a length of light chain and a very small diameter rope. The rope is such that it will break rather than pull the stern under if problems occur. Next, crewmembers negotiate by adjusting the length of the two anchor lines until the boat lies in the most productive section of the wreck.
Now that the boat is stable, fishing begins in earnest. The action can get pretty fast and having plenty of bait and tackle ready is a good idea. As anglers fish, they must continually adjust the anchors to obtain the best position and to work the entire area if possible. Often, the bite will die off in a short time, even if the boat can be held in position over productive structure.
While anchored on wrecks, a little personal restraint may be needed as greed can develop. A proficient crew can literally clean a wreck bare of it's inhabitants. At one time, this was considered perfectly acceptable behavior by many wreck fishermen. Often a higher quality catch can be had by fishing several spots lightly on a trip instead of overfishing one area.
While at anchor, a couple opportunities may present themselves. During the summer through fall, triggerfish, sea bass, dolphin fish, bluefish, and other species may orient above the wreck. At times these fish are so high in the water column that they may visible below the boat. If not visible to the naked eye, the fishfinder may give away their presence. In these situations, it is much easier to catch these fish with the boat stabilized. It is a good idea to try dropping the lines to various depths above the bottom in hopes of a hook-up. Experimenting with different baits is also good.
Artificial lures are more effective at anchor. Black sea bass and dolphin fish especially like jigs when they are suspended over a wreck. Anglers often use bucktail jigs with a plastic tail or metal slab jigs for black sea bass. For dolphin, flashy, fast moving lures like Hopkins jigs or Gotcha type plugs can be effective. For bottom dwelling fish like trout, a pink metal jig can be the ticket. When wreck fishing, artificial lures are suitable for lighter tackle and make the catching more fun.
Another opportunity exists while at anchor if larger predators are nearby. A small trout, spot or similar similar live bait can be floated back suspended under a float. It may be eaten by any number of wreck visitors including sharks, cobia, amberjack, king mackerel, etc. Chumming can increase the odds of success if the larger fish are the target.
Wreck fishing is usually more productive in the morning. Leaving the harbor at or before dawn is sometimes necessary due to fishing pressure. Wreck fishing is usually unproductive in windy weather, when seas are large, or after a big storm. Strong currents can also make wreck fishing impossible. Unfortunately, ocean currents generally cannot be predicted.
Wreck fishing etiquette is not written in stone. I consider most of my habits to be within reason although everyone has an opinion on this. When I approach a wreck and find another boat, I first try to identify it. Most local boaters know each other anyway. Sometimes I try to hail the boat on the VHF radio. Often negotiation can be handled on the radio. If I feel the wreck is large enough to accommodate both boats, I may approach the other boat and make a very slow survey around the area. If I can get a line or two down without disrupting the fellow anglers, I usually will. If not, I move on.
It is important to note that divers also frequent local wrecks and the law prohibits motoring within a given distance of a boat that is displaying a dive flag. In general, the presence of divers at a wreck usually warrants moving on. Other wreck users can include commercial fishermen, chunking fleets, or other user groups. When conflicts arise between different users, it may be best to simply move to another location.